If you want to fully appreciate tea’s delicate flavours, you need to know what you’re tasting – and you need to brew it right. Mike Riley offers a few professional pointers.
Tea is endlessly fascinating in its tastes and variety, but our quest for convenience has caused us to commoditise its wonderful leaves and hide them away in paper teabags. It might even be said that we have lost touch with our national drink. But perhaps if we give it a little more care, attention and awareness, tea can follow speciality coffee’s meteoric rise of recent years.
My journey through the world of caffeine started three decades ago when I trained as a tea and coffee taster for a large commercial tea blender and coffee roaster in the north of England. While I spent most of those years focused on coffee, I never lost my love for tea and its range of alluring flavours, so I recently joined Storm Tea, a small family business dedicated to organic, fine and rare teas.
Tea’s wide-ranging flavours are brought about, in part, by the many variations in the way the leaves and buds of the evergreen shrubs Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamica are processed. Tea-producing countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Kenya and Rwanda all use differing techniques to preserve their tea leaves, which results in varying flavour profiles.
In simple terms, the fresh leaves are partly dried, which is known as “withering”, then rolled or twisted to release the juices and enzymes. The tea can then be further dried through a process known as “firing” to create white and green teas, after which the leaves are graded and packed.
Alternatively, the rolled or twisted green leaves can be exposed to varying degrees of oxidisation, when enzymes react with oxygen to change the colour and flavour of the tea. Black teas receive a prolonged oxidisation period before being fired, whereas oolong is only partly oxidised to create a tea that is somewhere between green and black.
The result of all of this, added to varying terroirs, tea varieties and climates, is a product that’s as diverse as wine and coffee, with thousands of flavour possibilities.
Bag it up
How to make a cup of tea is a topic so wide and complex, thousands of books have been written about it over millennia. There are complicated ceremonies dominated by cultural idiosyncrasies in China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea. The Japanese tea ceremony, for example, lasts several hours and is so important it’s prepared for days in advance. It’s a fascinating process and well worth reading about or, better still, experiencing. But here we’ll focus on brewing tea in the UK.
Paper teabags dominate the domestic market, accounting for more than 90% of all the tea we consume. Most of these are formulated from mass-produced finely shredded African tea that is packed in just a few huge factories in the UK.
While we shouldn’t readily dismiss something that is incredibly popular, there is little argument that higher-grade loose-leaf teas are where we find the finest flavours. However, if teabags are necessary (such as for café takeaways), the silk pyramid is superior to paper bags as it has a larger brewing chamber and a more open weave, which allow it to contain high-quality loose leaves.
Pots of flavour
For the best results, you should always brew tea in a teapot. There are different materials to choose from – ceramic, glass, stainless steel, ceramic-lined cast iron – but all work well, so ultimately your decision comes down to design, practicality and functionality.
Glass teapots are fantastic because they allow you to observe the theatre of the unfurling and brewing leaves, but they can also break easily and can be expensive. Ceramic is safe and offers endless design possibilities, but functionality is crucial – a dripping spout can prove really irritating. Cast-iron teapots with ceramic linings, such as the Japanese tetsubin, are beautiful and excellent for retaining heat.
One consideration is whether to use a teapot with a built-in brewing filter. Purists will argue that leaves brewed directly in the pot produce the best results, but since washing them takes longer, a busy café is more likely to opt for a pot with an internal filter. If you take this option, it’s important to choose a filter large enough to allow the tea to brew properly. A gaiwan – a small Chinese porcelain brewing cup with a lid – might be used by purists and specialist tea shops for rarer white and yellow teas.
Once you’ve chosen your pot, using the right techniques will make the most of it and your leaves. There’s more to it than just chucking leaves and water. Here are our top tips.
Heat the pot Before adding the leaves, half-fill your teapot with hot water, swirl and empty. This makes sure the teapot is perfectly clean and stops the pot absorbing the heat of the brewing water when it’s added, allowing the tea to brew at the correct temperature.
Water The hardness of the water can have a significant effect on your cup of tea. Very soft water can make it taste astringent, while very hard water can render the tea featureless and “flabby” and will also produce an unsightly scum on the surface of the brew. A good water filter will resolve these issues.
Brew ratio The ratio of tea leaves to water is essential for the brew to taste its very best. However, strength of flavour is highly subjective so while there are guidelines, some experimentation is called for. In a café, a good barista (or tea sommelier) should always test new teas and decide on the perfect recipe before putting them on the menu. Usually, the ratio works out around 3g leaves per 250ml water, but with such a huge range of teas available there are bound to be exceptions.
Water temperature The majority of the tea we drink in the UK is black leaf tea, which requires water close to boiling point (95° to 100°C). Oolongs require water at this temperature too. However, green teas are ruined if brewed too hot and can yield pungent vegetal and marine notes through overextraction. The extraction is gentler with water heated between 75° and 85°C, and results in sweeter and more complex flavours. Some white teas require temperatures as low as 70°C.
Brewing time The length of time the leaves spend in the water is extremely important and emphasis should be applied to getting this right to create a really good pot of tea. Knowing the correct time for brewing the particular tea you’re using is crucial, and at home can easily be managed by noting the start time or using a stopwatch.
In a café, where brewing is likely to start at the counter and finish at the customer’s table, there will need to some communication or better still a tea timer – similar to an hour-glass egg timer. These are available specifically for black, white and green teas and look great on a tray next to the teapot.
Black teas and oolongs usually
require a five-minute brew time, while green teas are much better left for three minutes. Some white teas require up to seven minutes.
The art and science of tasting tea, like coffee, is known as cupping, although the old-fashioned term “tea liquoring” is still used by some tea blenders. The process follows strict laboratory conditions with regards to weights and measures of tea, water and milk, brewing times and temperatures.
The UK tea industry has a British Standard for the professional tea cupping, BS6008. However, it was last updated in July 2002 and is now a little outdated – it doesn’t allow for any variations on brewing temperatures and times to accommodate green and other types of tea, for example, which would be ruined if brewed in accordance with the BS6008 guidelines. These are the steps followed at most cuppings:
Steps for professional tea tasting
1 Weigh 2.8g tea into a 150ml professional tea-tasting cup.
2 Pour water heated to 95-100°C on to black teas or 75-85°C on to green teas, filling to within 5mm of the top of the cup.
3 Place the lid on the cup and using a timer allow to brew for five minutes for black teas and three minutes for green teas.
4 Once the brewing time is complete, place the lidded cup horizontally on the tasting bowl. The tea will strain through the grooves and into the bowl.
5 The brewed leaves should be tipped into the underside of the lid, which should sit inverted on the cup and placed behind the tasting bowl. This allows for visual inspection of the brewed leaves. A tea buyer will be able to assess how well the leaf was processed at origin by its appearance. Brightness of colour in black leaf tea is an indicator of quality and appears as a golden hue on both the brewed leaves and the liquor.
6 Once cool enough to cup, the leaf and liquor should be sniffed to assess fragrance. A tasting spoon is then used to slurp the tea across the palate and nose (or olfactory epithelium), allowing the taster to consider body, flavour, aftertaste, clean cup, uniformity and sweetness.
7 Observations are written in a cupping report. Descriptors are always useful, so key words may be added. For example, a good darjeeling may read, “A medium-bodied tea displaying floral notes with pleasant muscat grape nuances. Sweet with hints of marzipan on the finish.”